“We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs.”––Langston Hughes
Among the superstars who recently joined late-night television talk show host Arsenio Hall on the set of his newly-revived program was hip-hop pioneer and mogul Russell Simmons. In addition to expressing enthusiasm over sharing meditation with his children and exploring new film opportunities in Hollywood, Simmons spoke briefly and somewhat reservedly about a recent controversy involving artistic freedom versus social responsibility.
Without going into details about the scandal-plagued “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” video that he posted on, and then quickly removed from, his All Def Digital YouTube channel, Simmons admitted the backlash it created prompted the only instance where he felt compelled––after being pressured by different civil rights organizations––to withdraw artistic content from public access.
After making a move that he felt demonstrated exceptional sensitivity and social awareness, Simmons was discouraged when those who had criticized the parody video failed to acknowledge his corrective actions. His response to their lack of one illustrated a dilemma with which African-American creative artists have had to grapple ever since the Harlem Renaissance. The quandary is one which forces black artists to confront the question of which is more important: freedom of expression as an artist, or social and political responsibility to one’s community as an African American?
“I would love for all the rappers to talk about civil rights, animal rights, gay rights. I would love for them all to become progressive voices… But I’ve learned to accept people as they are… I want to nurture them. I’m not going to judge them and be heavy handed. Because it’s a waste of time.”
Chatting with Arsenio Hall, Simmons did not express regret over his choice to remove the ill-conceived Tubman parody. However…
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